Eastern Montana colleges face declining enrollments amid Bakken boom

2013-03-03T00:10:00Z 2013-03-04T07:30:11Z Eastern Montana colleges face declining enrollments amid Bakken boomBy MARY PICKETT mpickett@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The committee searching for a new president of Dawson Community College in Glendive has its work cut out for it.

The committee wants to entice someone to lead the two-year college that is struggling with a drop in enrollment and dealing with the effects of the Bakken boom.

The previous president, James Cargill, retired at the end of the year.

Jane Baker, retired dean of the College of Technology at Montana Tech of the University of Montana in Butte, started a six-month contract as interim president in January.

An enrollment drop of more than 18 percent over the past year drew the attention of the Montana Board of Regents.

DCC’s full-time-equivalent student total last fall was 279. This spring semester's enrollment was 233.

The regents also were concerned that budget projections depending on those anticipated enrollments were off the mark, John Cech, the state's deputy commissioner for two-year and community college education, told Dawson’s board of trustees in September.

The state’s community colleges are required to estimate enrollments two years out, a tough task during dramatic economic changes, said Jim Squires, chairman of the DCC board of trustees.

“We projected what we thought were honest figures,” Squires said. He and many others didn’t anticipate how fast and hard the oil boom in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota would hit Glendive.

“We’re on the edge of insanity,” one store owner told Squires, referring to the influx of people, skyrocketing real estate prices and high wages turning the local economy topsy-turvy.

The college has felt the boom's effects in several ways, Squires said.

Local high school students who might have come to Dawson can get an $80,000-a-year job in the oil patch with few skills.

High oil field salaries also make it difficult to hire instructors. DCC’s diesel mechanic program is being temporarily suspended because the college can’t find someone to work for the salary offered.

Higher rentals and housing prices also make it hard for students to move to Glendive from elsewhere.

A small house in Glendive that used to rent for $400 to $500 a month now goes for $1,400, Squires said.

Housing is so tight that the interim college president lives in a dorm on campus.

Montana’s community colleges receive state funding based on estimates of the number of in-state students. Colleges like Dawson also receive money from their local tax districts as well as from other sources such as tuition.

If a school underestimates enrollment, it can’t get additional money for those extra students from the state.

If it overestimates the number of students, it must return money to the state.

That’s what happened this academic year at Dawson.

The money the school paid back to the state plus tuition money Dawson didn’t get from students because of overprojections totaled about $469,000 out of a $7.3 million budget, Baker said.

Because the campus has been conservative in budgeting over the years, the belt-tightening hasn’t been dire, although Baker said she wouldn’t want those losses to continue.

“We’re looking at everything” to address a tighter budget, Squires said.

The Dawson board of trustees Monday approved a $100-a-semester increase in dorm fees beginning this fall. The increase will go toward upgrades to dorms, including much-needed improvements to the commons area, Baker said.

No excuses

Despite problems the Bakken brings, Baker also doesn’t want to use the boom as an excuse to let enrollment problems slide.

“We need to get a handle on it,” she said.

An enrollment management team is staying in touch with students from the first time they make contact with the college to encourage more students to attend Dawson.

The girls basketball coach recently told Baker that she had all but three spots on the team filled for this fall.

Ripple effects

Down the road in Miles City, the local community college has similar challenges.

Enrollment also declined this academic year at Miles Community College, but by a lesser percentage than at Dawson.

MCC had 368 full-time equivalent students in fall 2012, a drop of about 9 percent over the last year.

It, too, had overestimated the number of students it expected for the year and had to return money to the state.

That hasn’t been a great hardship to the college, because “we budget carefully,” said Stefani Hicswa, MCC president.

MCC also faces the challenges of a surging economy. An unemployment rate of about 3 percent means that both recent high school graduates and older workers, which in the past might have attended college, can find jobs with good pay, said Sue Stanton, chair of the MCC board of trustees.

While not ignoring declining enrollment, Hicswa said she is not worried about the college in the long run.

Enrollments are cyclical, and when unemployment is high, students flock to community colleges. When there are plenty of jobs, enrollment decreases, she said.

With fewer students attending full time, MCC is looking at ways to cater to their busy schedules. That includes short courses, such as business computer classes offered on weekends or evenings.

MCC also provides training for employees of local businesses, including customer service classes that last a week or two.

The college also has both semester-long and shorter commercial driver’s license courses to appeal to students with different schedules.

Legislative measure

Another way to address enrollment problems is a bill in the 2013 Montana Legislature that would split $1 million between DCC and MCC for workforce development programs.

Although the region has plenty of unskilled jobs now as energy development ramps up, Hicswa has heard from industry representatives that companies will need more skilled workers who could be trained at MCC.

Colleges in Glendive and Miles City also are considering collaborative projects and will meet this spring to discuss that topic, Squires said.

Other schools may be included, too.

For example, MCC may offer a commercial driver's license class at Montana State University Billings City College, Hicswa said.

Leader needed

Like Dawson Community College, Miles also has started a hunt for a new president.

Hicswa, who has been in Miles City for nearly seven years, recently was picked to lead Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., beginning in July.

The board accepted Hicswa’s resignation “with great remorse” because Hicswa has done a good job, Stanton said recently.

Stanton is upbeat about MCC’s future and the college's ability to attract an ambitious  new president.

Hicswa is leaving “a well-oiled machine” with staff members who have been involved in leadership of the college and can carry on.

The college itself is strong and offers a unique experience.

Because of its 1 to 10 teacher-student ratio, it gives “a private education at a public price,” Stanton said.

With a graduation rate of 61 percent — 61 percent of freshman entering in 2008 had graduated by spring 2012 — the school has been nominated twice for the Aspen Award, landing it in the top 10 percent of the 1,200 community colleges in the country.

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